You can bet money that even before President Bush gave the order to begin military action against Iraq, sleazy con artists were preparing to launch their own attacks on scared or naive investors.
As a countermeasure, investors are being warned to put up their own defenses against fraudulent or highly risky investment schemes.
The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recently cautioned investors not to make rash financial decisions because of war with Iraq.
"Beware of high-pressure pitches for nontraditional investments such as strategic metals, foreign currency, oil and gas investments, or tiny companies that supposedly have products or technology to combat chemical or biological terrorism or whatever else is in the headlines," said Christine A. Bruenn, Maine's securities administrator and president of NASAA, which represents securities regulators in the 50 states, the District, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico.
In the months leading up to the year 2000, investment promoters and con artists exploited people's fears that there would be massive computer crashes. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax-laced mail, con artists began touting bogus anthrax detectors and security-enhancing technologies. State regulators said hucksters also sold people fraudulent investments in phony technology companies.
"Our warning to investors is intended as a preemptive strike," said Jerry Munk, NASAA's public affairs coordinator. "Con artists are surprisingly resourceful in finding ways to work themselves into people's wallets."
Regulators in at least six states -- Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin -- have recently taken actions against investment promoters pushing oil and gas schemes. They worry that fluctuations in oil prices, supply disruptions or video footage of Iraqi oil fields in flames could make investors even more vulnerable to crooks.
In Texas earlier this year, David M. Phillips III of Dallas was sentenced to 34 months in jail and ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution in connection with an oil scheme that spanned 17 states, according to NASAA. Phillips admitted in court papers that none of the invested funds were used to develop oil wells. Instead, he and his associates used much of the money for personal expenses.
"What we have right now is confusion and fear and uncertainty about our markets," said Joseph P. Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission and immediate past president of NASAA. "Low interest rates and poor investment returns have created a bigger pool of potential investors that are looking for something they can't find in traditional investments. As the war escalates, the cons will escalate. And the schemers will use the headlines to con people."
Borg said he expects to see many scams resurface. He said investors should be suspicious of offers to invest in companies that claim to have devices to detect chemical contamination, kill anthrax spores or protect against germ warfare. He said promoters will try to sell investors shares in highly risky companies that emphasize defense technology. He also said investors should be cautious about solicitations to invest in foreign currencies or precious metals, such as gold, silver and platinum.
Although there are legitimate precious- metals investment opportunities, many experts say this type of investing can be risky and is often inappropriate for small investors.
"People often turn to precious metals in times of uncertainty, but in some cases, unscrupulous promoters downplay the fees and risk of loss, if they are mentioned at all," said Munk. "This is another one of the potential frauds that regulators fear will seem more attractive to investors when stocks are sinking and interest rates are at 40-year lows."
Borg added: "Right now the thing to do is don't panic. Don't do anything in a hurry. Use common sense with a healthy dose of skepticism."
NASAA urges investors to heed the following advice:
* Hang up on aggressive cold-callers promoting investments in precious metals or oil and gas schemes. Ignore tips about tiny companies with new anti-terrorist technologies or products.
* Contact your state securities regulator to check that the seller is licensed and the investment being promoted is registered. For a list of state regulators, go to www.nasaa.org/nasaa/abtnasaa/find_regulator.asp. You can also find your state securities regulator's office by looking in your telephone directory under "government."
* Request written information about any investment and carefully review it. If in the end you don't really understand what is being sold or promoted, don't invest. "Not every pitch [that] people will get is a scam, but many will be highly inappropriate for most investors," Borg said.
* Any promotion that uses the words "secure," "guaranteed" or "safe" along with a promise of a high return is most likely a fraud. To help investors stay clear of cons, many experts will say "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." I hate that admonishment because con artists spend every waking hour figuring out how to make their schemes sound good and appear true. And they know their victims are desperate for a decent return on their money.
So if you get a war-related pitch, keep in mind this warning from Borg: "A safe investment with a high return does not exist."
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will discuss today's column on the "Insight" program with Stephanie Gaines-Bryant tomorrow at 6:40 p.m. on WHUR (96.3 FM). Marc Robinson, co-author of the "Essential Finance" books, will be her guest for a Live Online discussion Wednesday at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.